My elbow hurts again. I blame my mother. And Flow.
As I wrote last fall in “Tennis Elbow,” I first encountered keyboard-induced neck and shoulder pain a few years ago when I worked at my old law firm. My Seattle doctor referred me to physical therapy. I dutifully did neck and shoulder exercises for several months, sharing teeny tiny weights with the other old ladies at the Polyclinic.
When I started to observe similar symptoms at my last job, I immediately contacted the university’s ergonomics guy to made sure I had a healthy work station and an appropriate office chair. He fixed my monitor arrangement. However, he said it was much more important to avoid sitting at my desk for too long. He told me to set a timer for myself, and make sure I regularly get up and go for a walk.
Unfortunately, at my home office these days, I’m the ergonomics guy. So I should not have been surprised when I started having elbow pain last fall. Fortunately, my insightful Bellingham physician Dr. Heuristic promptly referred me to physical therapy to treat my preposterously-named tennis elbow.
During the 1970s, psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi became fascinated as he observed artists who got lost in their work. He coined the term “flow,” which refers to a mental state of “complete immersion in an activity.”
Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."
According to Csíkszentmihályi, there’s a Goldilocks quality to maintaining a flow state: "Flow also happens when a person's skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable, so it acts as a magnet for learning new skills and increasing challenges. If challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills."
Csíkszentmihályi and his colleagues have identified ten indications you are in a flow state. One in particular leapt out at me:
Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing.
I’m sure you're breathlessly following Stormy Daniels’ civil lawsuit against Donald Trump and his sleazy lawyer Michael Cohen. Who isn’t? Nevertheless, in the recent flurry of Cohen-related activities in the various criminal cases, you may have missed the latest salvo from Ms. Daniels: her lawyers asked the judge to order both Trump and Cohen to submit to depositions in her case. (According to the online magazine Slate, “Stormy Daniels’ Motion to Depose Trump is on Stunningly Solid Legal Footing.”)
Depositions are simultaneously a dress rehearsal for the witness’ trial testimony, as well as a way to set up (or luck into) gotcha soundbites you hope to use effectively with the judge or jury later. More importantly, depositions are an opportunity to gather key evidence in real time – without having to wait thirty days after posing each question before you read the witness’ sworn answer, no doubt overthought and lawyer-edited to death by then. As the author of the foremost treatise on evidence observed a century ago, cross-examination is “the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” Effectively examining an essential witness at deposition adds more value for a client than lining up some hot shot trial counsel. A great deposition means there won’t be any trial, or that the trial (or settlement) will be on your terms.
I’ve taken and defended hundreds of depositions during my legal career. Several years ago, I was deposed myself for the first time. (I was a witness in a real estate dispute involving a former client.) One of my partners at the law firm represented me. He made appropriate objections for the record, and reminded me how to be a good witness.1
1As I previously wrote in “This is what a lawsuit looks like: Party Discovery,” a good lawyer will give you this advice: (1) listen carefully to the question, (2) let the questioning lawyer completely finish talking, (3) pause so every other lawyer, particularly yours, has a chance to make an objection for the record (but of course never for the purpose of coaching witnesses before they answer), (4) make sure you understand the question, (5) take as much time as you need, and (6) honestly answer (7) only that one question. Number 6 is the most important. Then (8) stop talking. No speeches, arguing, or crosstalk, that’s for Oscar campaign clips or self-destructive CEOs. Finally, (9) don’t use grunts, murmurs, and nonverbal signals in your answer. It’s hard on the hired court reporters, and results in a confusing written transcript.
After reading the transcript, I think I did an excellent job. I mostly followed my lawyer's advice.
The part of the deposition experience I found most remarkable was that I completely lost track of time. I was in a flow state – I could have sat there answering questions forever. This doesn't happen when I'm just the lawyer. So I’ve subsequently been more attentive to the clock and my clients’ energy level during depositions, because I realize the witness may not be in a position to exercise self-care.
I was deposed for two days. Stormy Daniels has asked the judge to allow depositions of Trump and Cohen for measly a two hours. Nevertheless, if Trump can find new lawyers to represent him, I suggest they ask for lots of breaks.
As I’ve previously discussed in various blog posts, Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman offers a useful model of how our brains rely on two contrasting mental processors, which I've referred to as Thing 1 and Thing 2. The first system is fast and automatic, constantly multi-tasking as it retrieves memories and generates intuitions. In contrast, the second system allocates our brains’ limited conscious attention to effortful mental tasks. Thing 2 sucks up a lot of energy. It would prefer to lazily coast along with the information and assumptions it receives from Thing 1.
Our Thing 2 processor makes us uniquely human in all kinds of ways. For example, our massive brains require wide childbearing hips. But those hips still are not wide enough to finish brain development during pregnancy, so brains keep growing during infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Ever after we stop adding new brain cells, those millions of neurons keep re-wiring each other for the rest of our lives.
Humans’ big brains also suck up much more energy than the rest of our organs. In particular, it turns out we have a very limited supply of fuel available for Thing 2’s two most important tasks: deliberate thought and self control.
According to Kahnemen, the intensely productive flow state is possible because “Flow neatly separates the two forms of attention: concentration on the task and the deliberate control of attention.” What sets flow apart from other mental activities is that our brain doesn't need to waste any of its precious fuel on keeping itself on task:
Riding a motorcycle at 150 miles an hour and playing a competitive game of chess are certainly very effortful. In a state of flow, however, maintaining focused attention on these very absorbing activities requires no exertion of self-control, thereby freeing resources to be directed to the task at hand.
When I’m writing nowadays, I can get into a flow state that will last for hours, even days. After decades of writer’s block, the endless cycle of inspiration, writing, and editing still is pretty new to me. Each phase involves different creative processes. So far, I've recognized I generally have a burst of activity starting on Fridays immediately after I finish my single-parent week.
Sure enough, after reading Sherman Alexie’s memoir about his mother, I spent all last weekend writing a long essay in tribute to my own mother, “Blaming Your Parents.” Unfortunately, I did not pay sufficient attention to my posture, and I forgot to take breaks. Or to eat, or sleep, or bathe.
Even with my fancy ergonomic chair, the result was predictable. My shoulders, neck, and the tendons in my left arm are throbbing. So I got out the arm brace and the little weights left over from physical therapy. I’m slowly started my own rehabilitation. I also remembered the ergonomics guy’s advice, and set a writing timer for myself.
Time’s up, I’m going for a walk with the voices in my head.